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CAPCOG report warns that waters issues could stunt regional growth

Monday, January 17, 2011 by Michael Kanin

A subcommittee of the Capital Area Council of Governments sees trouble coming as its 10 member counties look to coordinate development among their respective jurisdictions. Though its concerns cover four major policy areas, the CAPCOG Growth Assessment Subcommittee seems most concerned about water.


According to Council of Governments Senior Planner David Fowler, water issues pose a significant challenge to the region. “In all of our meetings—from the earliest meetings to the final meetings—water was always the issue that commanded the most import and kept the group going as far as discussions,” he said.


The report concluded that water systems and the three water planning regions affecting the CAPCOG area are not coordinating their actions to ensure that all areas suited for growth have adequate water reserves.


Fowler delivered his organization’s outlook to the Austin Council’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation subcommittee. There, Council Member Chris Riley told his colleagues that he felt the Growth Assessment Subcommittee’s report “bears pretty significantly on the same sort of issues we’ve been working on in our comprehensive plan.”


Fowler’s presentation was centered on a series of maps depicting the trouble some regional jurisdictions face. He showed a map of counties depicting what percentage of water contracts they had used between 2007 and 2008.


“One thing that is very important to note, especially thinking as far as regional growth and where it can and can’t go is, anything you see that is not colored in is an area where there is not a water system,” he said. “That is a very important building block as far as what can shape regional growth.”


According to the Council of Governments report, “one of the…takeaways is that many of the systems outside the major cities in the western part of the region have very small systems without much water available. This lack of water infrastructure may limit growth in the western parts of the region.”


Fowler later raised a question. “Do we have a trend where we’re going to be over-burdening the groundwater based on lots of fragmented development that is in areas that are not served by water systems?” he asked.


Travis County seems concerned with that possibility. Late last year, its Commissioners’ Court acted to put a hold on development projects that rely on Trinity Aquifer ground water (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 20, 2010).


Fowler saw other issues in Williamson County. “(It) is a huge question mark…in that the population projections that are in place for Williamson County are not supported by the current water contracts,” he said.


After the hearing, Riley told In Fact Daily that “the region is looking carefully at…the impact of water availability on growth.” He said that it was “especially concerning” for those areas that don’t have “adequate supplies of water under contract.” Here, he specifically cited the southern Travis County, northern Hays County region.


Fowler agreed. “There are some areas in the region where roughly Travis County, Hays County, and Caldwell County intersect that are actually using more water in a given year than they have under contract,” he said.


“Long term, there is reason to be concerned about whether growth in the region will be distributed in such a way that the water infrastructure will be able to keep up with it,” said Riley.


The Council of Governments encouraged its member entities to seek “conservation of water resources through innovative design, reuse, landscaping, and education.”

Fowler’s report went on to cite challenges in land use, transportation, and economic development.


In his land use section, for example, Fowler highlighted the lack of county regulatory authority. “Counties do not have adequate land use powers to assure development is suitable for the region’s long-term needs,” he said. To this, he added a more urban wrinkle: “Cities, while having sufficient land use control, often plan their land uses in isolation.”


Here, as he had in regard to water issues, he called for better cooperation between jurisdictions. He also suggested that the issue over county regulatory authority should be taken to the State Legislature.

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